Health campaign aims to end cervical cancer

Staff writerMay 18, 2010 

— North Carolina could be among the first states to eliminate cervical cancer, according to a group of health care experts who launched an effort Tuesday with that goal.

More than 100 clinicians, researchers, community activists and some cancer survivors attended the launch of the Cervical Cancer-Free Initiative at a Raleigh hotel. That's almost as many women — 114, on average — who die of cervical cancer in North Carolina each year.

While the number of deaths from the illness has dropped steadily over three decades in the state and across the nation, all cervical-cancer deaths are preventable, said Noel T. Brewer, director of the initiative. Brewer is also an associate professor in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, which is a partner with the N.C. Division of Public Health, in the initiative.

“This is an illness that kills people in countries where people don't have access to health care,” Brewer said.

In the U.S. 4,070 women died of the disease last year, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“We are a rich country,” Brewer said. “This shouldn't be happening here.”

At Tuesday's half-day conference, participants talked about ways to get more girls vaccinated against HPV, or human papillomavirus, which is present in every case of cervical cancer, and to increase screening for cervical cancer in women who weren't vaccinated.

Those two steps could reduce most of the deaths, Brewer said. In North Carolina, only a third of girls aged 13 to 17 receive even one dose of the vaccine, he said. Three doses are recommended.

Most don’t get it because their doctors don’t suggest it, he said; others, because their parents have aren’t convinced it’s a good idea. Some have said they feared it could lead to increased sexual behavior among young girls.

“I find that unconscionable,” said Gov. Bev Perdue, who spoke at the event.

Pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline gave the group $1.5 million to start its work, which will begin with educational campaigns to increase voluntary vaccinations, and efforts to get more women to get screened more frequently.

GlaxoSmithKline manufactures Cervarix, an HPV vaccine that was approved by the FDA in October.

The company has helped start similar efforts in California, Alabama and Kentucky. The four states will share information and strategies, Brewer said.

In North Carolina, one vexing statistic is that African American women are twice as likely at white women to die of the disease, though vaccination and screening rates are roughly the same.

Marie Miranda, who works in the state's Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities, cheered the idea of eradicating cervical cancer. She was diagnosed with the disease in 1998, when she was a 28-year-old student in Puerto Rico.

After surgery to remove her cervix and another tumor near her hip, she said, she not only worried about cancer coming back, but wrestled with depression over the prospect of not being able to have children.

“I felt alone,” she said, because she didn't know anyone her age who had had the same experience. And she felt for a long while as though she was no longer a whole person.

Eliminating the disease would wipe out the emotional toll it takes on women and their families in addition to the financial burden it presents.

Dr. Barbara K. Rimer, dean of the Gillings School of Global Public Health, said that only once every few decades do all the factors align to make it possible to practically wipe a disease off the face of the earth.

It requires the right people, good science, and investment by government and private industry.

The time to end it is now and North Carolina is the place.”

martha.quillin@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8989

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